Despite decades of earnest technological advances, meetings
generally remain as unsatisfying as they are unproductive. The culprit is the meeting
room model of a single computer hooked up to a projector, which forces
participants to work in sequence rather than in tandem. This stymies
collaboration and channels meetings into a presenter-driven dynamic, where each
person must wait their turn to load up their material or use the mouse.
Whiteboarding and application sharing can restore some of
the sense of mutuality and participation, but they typically limit the
collaboration to one document or application at a time. It can also be
difficult for participants to incorporate materials that they’ve prepared in
advance of the meeting into the collaborative session.
In teleconferences and virtual meetings–even in high-end
telepresence environments–the problems are amplified by the inevitable fifteen
minutes of troubleshooting and verifying connections, and the disconnection
that remote participants experience by not being in the room.
So we have a consensus: meetings suck. Can we adjourn now?
Not so fast. Mezzanine, an innovative new technology from
Los Angeles-based startup Oblong Industries,
promises a cure for the common meeting with a feature set straight out of a
science fiction movie.
Imagine this: Participants walk into a meeting room
outfitted with a series of large flat-panel monitors on every wall creating a display
surface nearly a dozen feet long and three feet high. Additional monitors in
vertical aspect are mounted on adjoining walls. Attendees attach their laptops,
iPads, SmartPhones or any device with a video output to one head of an
octopus-like connection cable (or, perhaps someday soon, through a wireless
All the video signals are aggregated across the series of
displays, which function as a single interactive workspace. Additional input sources
can come from remote participants, video cameras positioned around the room,
whiteboards, Web-based or networked media, or applications running elsewhere.
To control the display, participants reach for one of several
three-sided control wands, shaped like Toblerone chocolate bars, with a button
on each of the three faces. The wands allow anyone to select, highlight, zoom
and manipulate any of the media elements on the main display, or move any media
to one of several auxiliary displays on either facing wall of the room, using
natural gestures in 3D space. Rotating the control wand longitudinally changes
the functionality from manipulating media elements to being able to select and
marquee items within each element, or reaching through the display to the
underlying functionality of the application.
In the Mezzanine demo I attended, the presenter showed how
this might work in an industrial design setting. Several of the laptops in the
room were running a 3D modeling application, where any participant could
manipulate the perspective on the 3D model, change colors and shapes, or use
any of the features of the design software live, in the meeting, just using the
wand. This display was juxtaposed with charts of market data (and, the
presenter said, potentially the output of a real-time ERP dashboard) running on
one of the other PCs in the room. At the same time, live video from multiple
sources showed different remote participants, all with equal access to the
Mezzanine display through their computers or mobile devices. A second camera
pointed to the whiteboard in the room, which was also represented and captured
on the main display.
Using the wands or a representation of the workspace on
their individual devices, everyone in the meeting–including remote
participants–has equal ability to share their data, comment or modify data
being presented, or bring any information to the attention of others by
stepping it forward on the display.
If this all sounds like something from Minority
Report, that’s no coincidence. Mezzanine grew out of the G-Speak
technology invented by MIT MediaLab alumnus and TED-talker
John Underkoffler, who was a technical advisor on that 2002 film.
In its current incarnation, Mezzanine is a little pricey to
be mainstream technology, but the trajectory of innovation suggests it will be
within the reach of mortals by the middle of the decade. And when that happens,
we can adjourn tired old-style meetings once and for all.